Acer CloudMobile S500 review
Reasonably priced Android phones are a mixed bag. At £100 you have the bargain-basement, but still very likeable phones that are popular on pay as you go - think Orange San Francisco 2 and T-Mobile Vivacity. Then there are the £200 phones, like the Galaxy Ace 2, that offer a surprising amount of power and an experience that's only a little short of the higher-end phones. And at £300-£450 you get the Rolls-Royce of phones, it's here you'll find the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III.
So, where does the S500 sit? Well, at nearly £300 it's at the costly end of mid-range. So there's a lot it needs to prove to win over the hearts of the public. Not least, battling against Acer's hardly being a "big name" in the world of mobile phones.
But lesser-known companies have blown us away before, so there's no reason to suspect Acer can't pull something amazing out of the bag too.
We'd describe the S500 as smart, and honestly, we think it's quite attractive too. It does little to move us away from the traditional "slab of black" that smartphones invariably become when switched off. But a nicely drilled speaker grille at the top, alongside some pleasant metallic trim make the S500 look a bit different. It's not a perfect rectangle either, a slight curve gives it a distinctive look that will make it stand-out from other phones in its price range.
On the left of the phone, there's a micro-USB for charging. On the top, a headphone socket and power button, while the volume rocker lives on the right-hand side. Flip the back off, and there's microSD and micro-SIM sockets and the removable battery pack.
On the back, you'll find the camera which has a pretty standard 8-megapixel sensor, and an LED flash, for adding a little extra light.
S500 vs Nexus 4
There's some argument about the Nexus 4, and where it sits in the product hierarchy. One thing's for sure: it represents amazing value for money. In many ways, the S500 offers an alternative. It's less powerful though, with half the amount of memory and half the processor cores of the Nexus 4. But it is more flexible, with a microSD card slot for expanding the built-in memory and a replaceable battery.
READ: LG Nexus 4 review
It's interesting that although the S500 isn't a powerhouse in modern terms, we found it very capable indeed, and we enjoyed using it because everything was slick and smooth. Unlocking and swiping around the home screens is really a silky-smooth process, there's very little to complain about here. Of course, by using a very stripped-down version of Android with few customisations, that makes the whole thing less bloated, but also results in fewer "fancy" features.
We found it all made for a phone that felt incredibly high-end. It's worth bearing in mind that if you install very graphically rich games, the performance won't match, say, a Galaxy S III, but for non-intensive use, it's absolutely brilliant.
Interestingly, the Acer will also play MKV video. So you can access quite a lot of video from the, erm, net, and play it back perfectly with the sound perfectly intact. This is slightly unsurprising, given that the phone has Dolby audio, but it's nice anyway and something we'd like to see more of.
It's worth mentioning the display here. It's excellent and matches the one found on the LG Nexus 4, but because it's a smaller display, the pixel density is slightly higher, which means - in theory only - it will look a bit better than the one on the Nexus. You would need the eyes of an owl to spot that in real use though. Do you have owl eyes? No? Then bad luck.
Putting the cloud in CloudMobile
The S500 is clearly designed to be packaged as a device for the cloud. That's reasonable these days with almost any Android phone, as there are a huge number of apps that help you work in the cloud.
For example, Google Music has now launched in the UK, which means we can all upload 20,000 tracks for free using its PC software, and music purchased through the company's store will be automatically kept safe for you. Then there's Google+ which can upload all your images and Gmail which keeps your contacts safe, along with all your Google mail.
Add that in to Skydrive and Dropbox, and you've already got a pretty compelling case that Android is a cloud-aware OS now. Of course, Apple has the upper hand here, because its back-up system is much better, and you can switch iPhones every day and still have access to your "original" phone configuration. Android has never really done a great job with phone back-ups, with users having to remember the apps they need, and then download them manually.
Acer adds in its Acer Cloud to the mix too. It's very similar to the services mentioned above, but it comes in one single service. So you can share photos, music and videos from your PC to your phone. All your documents and cameraphone photos will also be uploaded for you, automatically.
The app is a bit of a faff: there seem to be various components to it that need to be installed when you log in the first time. And, if you want a proper experience, you'll have to use Acer's apps for your documents, music and video. While we welcome the move to the cloud, we think Google's services manage it in a more elegant way.
Call quality, text messaging
We have to say, as a phone, the S500 really hits the spot. It's nice to hold, and use. It feels comfortable against your ear, the earpiece is easy to locate. This all sounds ridiculous, but spend some time with a Nokia Lumia 920 and you'll understand that perfectly smooth phone faces can make for a moderately hateful phone experience.
Call quality is good too. In our tests, we could hear the party we were calling easily, and there was no excessive break-up, as long as we had a good strong signal.
Thanks to the Swype keyboard, text messaging is simple too. You can use it as a standard single-tap keyboard or opt for the swipe method, which relies on your finger drawing a line between the letters of the word you're trying to write. It's a good system, that works well.
There's also the standard Android keyboard included. We're pleased by this, because the stock keyboard on Android is very good. It doesn't have the tricks of Swiftkey or Swype, but it's a capable typing surface, with logical key layout and good spacing. It's easy to type accurately on this stock keyboard, which is what it's all about.
Custom notification area
The one area that Acer seems to have customised is the notifications area. It's a good advert for not customising things, if we're honest. There's nothing too serious wrong here, but the Acer-designed interface is uglier than the standard Android system.
When you drag the notifications tray down, you're presented with notifications, then you can swipe left to the settings and again to get to alarms. It's a reasonable enough system to be honest, it just doesn't quite match the rest of the operating system.
On the flipside, Acer has outsourced the on-screen keyboard to Swype, something that works very well indeed. It takes a while to learn to swipe instead of type, but once you get it, it's a great way of interacting with your phone. And, it's also a decent standard keyboard, which means you can ignore the swiping, if you are so inclined.
There's also an app called My Style, which lets you customise the lock screen wallpaper and shortcuts, along with your ringtone and the number of homescreens your phone has. It's simple, but it works pretty well.
The app that takes photos on the S500 is a fairly basic affair. There aren't a lot of extra features or effects here. You can apply some ghastly filters to your images, should you wish to destroy them totally, or you can just take a normal photo and enjoy it for the rest of time without wondering what the hell you were smoking to think it was a good idea to mess up all your photos with some ludicrous "sepia" filter.
Results are reasonable. It suffers a little from the curse of all cheaper phone cameras in that auto-focus, while reasonably snappy, likely to mis-focus from time-to-time and the whole thing seems oversensitive to camera shake. There also seems to be some lag, between the camera suggesting it's got the shot, and when it actually gets the shot.
We liked the photos on the whole though, and there's not too much of the detail smooshing you get on entry-level cameraphones. There's real detail here, and if you work at it, you'll get some nice photos out of the camera.
The battery seems to be, at best, average. We had an okay time with it when we used it normally. It would last through the day, and we'd have few problems getting home in the evening before it died.
We did notice that if you use it for an extended period, it drains very quickly indeed. This will depend on a lot of factors - the signal in your area, how bright the screen is, etc - but we don't think the battery is as capacious as perhaps it needs to be.
On the plus side, it is user-replaceable, so you can invest in a spare for those times when you run out of juice and need to carry on using the phone.
The S500 is a great device. It's sensibly priced and features the sort of cut-down Android experience that Android lovers will really like. As a result, there's a lack of enhancements over Google's core OS, but that core is a lot more feature-complete than back in the days of 1.6 or 2.0.
Battery life is, we think, a little lame, but this phone has a reasonably modest capacity of 1460mAh. Perhaps Acer is cost-saving, but we're pretty sure it could have upped the power pack, and gained a lot of life for the device.
We tested this phone in both the UK on T-Mobile and in the US on AT&T - using a US SIM card. It performed brilliantly, with 3G in both countries feeling speedy and responsive. Call quality is great too, and this is, in phone terms, a solid performer.
It's perhaps not got the glamour of the Nexus 4, and running Android 4.0 is a disappointment, to be honest, but it's still a solid performer, and one we've very much enjoyed using.